Below the surface of the calm azure waters surrounding St. John lives a thriving tropical marine ecosystem. Humpback and pilot whales, dolphins, brown pelicans and sea turtles all use the waters to forage, breed, nest and rest. It’s a spawning habitat for commercially important groupers and snappers. Countless species of fish, invertebrates, and plants use the reefs and mangroves during their lives. Many of the animals that take refuge there are threatened or endangered.
In January of 2001 President Bill Clinton established more than 12-thousand submerged acres on the south and east sides of St. John be designated the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. Most of the Monument extends the line of the Virgin Islands National Park boundaries, as well as a large portion of Hurricane Hole. While the designation has been in place for three and a half years, a plan to manage the monument has not.
“It’s a very new monument, and the regulations provide enough protection for it,” says Art Frederick, superintendent of both the National Monument and the National Park.“It was mandated by law that the park service provide a plan in three years.”
In keeping with that mandate, the National Park Service has embarked on a major planning effort that will guide the future management of both the National Park and the National Monument. This new general management plan will create a vision for each park that will serve as a blueprint for the next ten to 15 years. The plan will address common problems that affect the parks and surrounding communities, while protecting the natural and cultural resources and giving visitors a quality experience.
“Will their experiences change as a result of this?
In general, the experience should remain largely unchanged for the general user,” says Thomas Kelley, the Natural Resources Manager with the National Park Service.“But the plan is a tool to guide the proper management of the reef from all perspectives into the future.Use patterns and types of use will be addressed in the plan.”
Frederick says they are constantly making difficult decisions about balancing preservation with public enjoyment, about competing demands for limited resources, about priorities for using available funds and staff, and about differing interests and views of what is most important.
“Hopefully we will develop a plan flexible enough to protect our cultural and natural resources, as well as allow visitors to enjoy the resource,” says Frederick.
This General Management Plan will be about two and a half years in the making.
The first round of public comment meetings have wrapped up, now the planning team will meet to study those comments, develop alternatives, and assess the impacts of those alternatives.
Next February, more public comment meetings will be held, and by summer of 2005, the first draft of the management plan will be written.By summer of 2006, the final copy should be in place.
“The beauty in the General Management Plan is that it gives birth to broad guidelines, but will give the park staff guidance on a day to day basis,” says Frederick.
It is guidance that will protect the marine habitat for generations to come.
“Reefs are the second most diverse ecosystem on earth, second to the rainforest,” says Kelley.“Ninety-five percent of all life on earth occurs in the ocean. Reefs add stability to shorelines. They have aesthetic and spiritual values. They must be protected and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.”